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NY Democrats set to make LGBTQ House history

NY Democrats set to make LGBTQ House history
© Getty/courtesy photos

New York congressional candidates Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, who are both leading their primary races this week, are on the verge of making history as the first openly LGBTQ Black and Afro-Latino members of Congress.

The prospect of Jones, 33, and Torres, 32, serving in Congress has galvanized the LGBTQ community during Pride Month, as well as Americans of color as protests over racial injustice are held nationwide.

Advocates are hopeful their presence will help promote a gay-friendly agenda on Capitol Hill and galvanize voters ahead of November’s general election.

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“The idea of having both Ritchie and Mondaire serve in Congress is a game-changer,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David.

Jones, who worked in the Justice Department under former President Obama, is aiming to replace the retiring Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Rep. David Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel House Democrats pick DeLauro to lead Appropriations panel MORE (D) in New York's 17th District, while Torres, a member of the New York City Council, has his sights on the 15th District seat held by retiring Rep. José Serrano (D).

There are still thousands of votes to be counted in their districts, but, as of election night, Jones held 43 percent of the vote in the 17th, while his closest opponent in the seven-person contest, Adam Schleifer, had 20 percent. In the 15th District, Torres held 30 percent of the vote, while his closest opponent in the 12-person race, Michael Blake, stood at 19 percent.

“The affirmation from nearly 50 percent of Democrats in my district, is I think, really powerful,” Jones said in an interview with The Hill. “I spent a lot of my life questioning whether I could live as an openly gay person, and so now to be one of the most openly gay, Black people in media right now, it’s quite a change of pace.”

Jones will likely face Republican Maureen McArdle Schulman in the general election if they both win their primaries, while Torres would face Orlando Molina. Both districts lean overwhelmingly Democratic.

New York holds special significance for LGBTQ Americans as the home of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that police raided in 1969, leading to days of riots and eventually the modern gay rights movement in the U.S.

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“It is shocking that New York City, which is the birthplace of Stonewall, has no LGBTQ representation in the congressional delegation,” Torres said.

While New York is generally known as one of the more liberal bastions of the U.S., Torres found himself running against fellow Councilor Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister, who has a long history of making homophobic remarks.

A poll from the left-leaning Data for Progress in May showed Díaz leading the pack with 22 percent support, with Torres close behind at 20 percent.

The risk of Díaz winning the primary caused a number of outside groups to pour money into the race. The Voter Protection Project spent as much as $500,000 in television, mail, digital and texting efforts to support Torres, while the Human Rights Campaign launched a five-figure ad buy against Díaz.

“The triumph of an openly LGBTQ candidate over Rubén Díaz Sr., who is the face of homophobia in New York City politics, represents long overdue poetic justice,” Torres said.

Jones's and Torres's surging campaigns come nearly 30 years after former Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) was reelected to Congress after he was outed in 1983. The 2018 election marked the biggest wave of victorious LGBTQ congressional candidates so far, with 10 sworn into the 116th Congress.

Torres and Jones both said that if elected, they will work in Washington to lift up minority communities, including LGBTQ citizens.

“[They] do bring multiple sets of experiences,” said Annise Parker, the president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “They also grew up in public housing and they came out of poverty — all of those experiences come together for the constituents that they’re going to serve.”

Jones said in Congress he would continue the push for universal health care, emphasizing the need for LGBTQ individuals to have access to drugs such as the HIV-preventative preexposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

“People have been talking about the Equality Act and that’s really important, but we must have a broad conception of justice and equity for members of the LGBTQIA community,” Jones said, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexual or allies. “The analysis cannot end at enshrining protections for the community in anti-discrimination law. We must provide health care as a human right in the form of Medicare for all.”

Jones has also proposed monthly stimulus checks — $2,000 per adult and $1,000 per child — to be sent to Americans amid the struggling economy brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Torres, who represents the South Bronx on the New York City Council, said he has long worked at the local level to address poverty and wealth gaps in minority communities, but he hopes to have an even bigger impact at the federal level.

“I’ve seen clearly the limitations of local government. Much of what is done at the local level is essentially the implementation of federal programs and priorities,” he said. “If you want to have a chance of being a transformational lawmaker and addressing the root causes of racially concentrated poverty, you have to be in Washington, D.C., because that’s where the rules are set.”

If elected, Jones and Torres will be entering Congress amid a chaotic period of American history. Both men come from some of the hardest-hit districts in the pandemic and have been involved in the ongoing national reckoning over racial injustice.

“I described New York 15 as the craziest possible race as the craziest possible moment,” Torres said. “Both COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd reveal the systemic racism that continues to plague American society.”

The candidates also say they will do everything possible to help former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE in November, both calling Trump “an existential threat.”

“I’m going to be out there doing whatever I can to get him elected,” Jones said. “I think what he needs to do is unite the left flank of the party behind him because we cannot afford to have disaffected not going out to support him.”

LGBTQ organizations are hopeful that victories from Torres and Jones will galvanize their voting community ahead of November.

“It is illustrative of what we’ve done in other races, and what we’re going to do moving into November,” David said. “LGBTQ voters, pro-equality voters, all over the country are energized and mobilized to vote in this election.”